Carol Tyler painted “I Am Married to Comics,” a remarkable self-portrait, in the long-lost days of 2006. Like much of her art, it was borne of her intense frustration with the men in her life. On this particular occasion, it was her frustration with 15 men—the cartoonists of “Masters of American Comics,” an exhibition in which all of the so-called masters just happened to be guys, if you can even believe it. The world was crazy back then, and women barely made comics, and probably a dog ate Art Spiegerman’s history homework. Ain’t no accounting for taste.
(“‘Masters of American Comics’ is a landmark and a pleasure,” raved the New York Times. “A revelation.”)
More recently, as part of a roundtable on the unmitigated shitshow that was this year’s Angoulême Grand Prix, Tyler’s painting resurfaced. Ten years on, everything has changed, or so I’ve heard. There are just so many women making comics these days, or something. And yet, as Tyler’s post makes clear—painfully, abundantly clear—nothing has changed…except, perhaps, the eagerness with which Good Men in Comics will seize an opportunity to denounce a plainly sexist stunt.
The denouncements began with Dan Clowes, who, through no real fault of his own, received more credit for the boycott than the collective of women who instigated it. “Fantagraphics Artist Daniel Clowes Takes on Gender Inequality in Comics Establishment,” read a headline in The Seattle Times. Quoth G. Willow Wilson, the face of Feminist Comics™, “He took a big risk and I admire him for that.”
Clowes’ statement was designed to put the festival organizers in their place, which you’ll note is well beneath him. “I support the boycott of Angoulême and am withdrawing my name from any consideration for what is now a totally meaningless ‘honor,’” he said. “What a ridiculous, embarrassing debacle.”
That ‘honor’ Clowes put in scare quotes (and the “embarrassing debacle” he plainly names) were, one assumes, perfectly fine and legit in the halcyon days of 2015, when he shared the distinction of being nominated with one (1) human woman, Marjane Satrapi—a fact he somehow failed to note. I can only imagine how this cultural conversation might have been different if, instead of condemning the boorish French, Clowes had simply copped to the fact that he had never noticed the (blatant, persistent) gender disparity at this festival…and how frustrated he became with the situation—including his own role in it—once he heard the Good Word.
But Clowes didn’t do that; instead he chose to affirm his own goodness. And from there we had to watch an increasingly pathetic Limbo line of “enlightened” cartoonists, all the way down Milo “How Low Can You Go” Manara—Milo Fucking Manara—leveraging his denouncement as an opportunity to deflect criticisms of his own egregiously sexist work.
(“I have always tried to be respectful of [women’s] role as subject and not object in my work,” Manara wrote. His statement echoed across comics news outlets.)
Less awful, but somehow more annoying (to me), every journalist in the Kingdom of Comics wrote lengthy explainers on this thing that anyone with two eyes could see was just bad. This commentary brimmed with indignation RE: how the cretins at Angoulême managed to forget that some cartoonists have vaginas. In the year 2016!!!! Can you even imagine?
Let me try to explain something, friends. Angoulême does not exist in a vacuum. And those philistines we’ve spent the last two months denouncing are not self-made men (and women, I guess? clearly haven’t read enough explainers). They exist within comics, and comics remains an outrageously sexist culture, full stop.
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Recently, as I studied Carol Tyler’s painting, I reflected on my own role in that culture.
“Elizabeth I once said that she was ‘married to England’ as a way of creating the identity of Great Britain, which reminded me of my full commitment to the form, like nuns who become Brides of Christ,” Tyler writes. “This painting, with all its symbolism, became my manifesto.”
What Tyler doesn’t mention is that, in addition to being metaphorically married to the form, she’s literally married to Justin Green, who’s widely recognized as the father of autobiographical comics. It’s a sometimes fraught relationship that she’s depicted in her work and discussed on the record with a number of writers, including me.
In 2012, when I interviewed her, I was working on a project that had me talking to a lot of cartoonists. Some of Tyler’s comments made it into the final piece, but just barely. (This wasn’t in itself unusual; I talked to other cartoonists, men and women, who didn’t make it in at all.) We had talked for a long time, a conversation that ran for 25 typed pages once it was transcribed, but the part I ended up using was about how comics readers applied a double standard to the work of her and her husband:
Similarly, the cartoonist Carol Tyler, who will publish the third and final volume of her remarkable graphic memoir You’ll Never Know this October, is frequently shunned by the fans of her husband, Justin Green. “A lot of people are disturbed that I talked about Justin walking out on me,” said Tyler, whose trilogy weaves together the stories of the near dissolution of her marriage with her father’s military service in World War II. “That was a shocker. ‘Justin Green, father of the autobiographical comic! Why would you show him leaving you like you he was a cad? We love him.’ I could feel the chill.”
It was a sorta gossipy detail, a flash in the context of many interesting things Tyler had said about her own work. I was using her observations to point to a sort of hypocrisy I see in how women’s autobio is received. But even as I made that point about sexism in comics, I was reinforcing sexism in comics by choosing to focus on her identity as a wife more than her work as a cartoonist. Worse, I realized it at the time—and did it anyway. It suited my purposes.
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Looking at Tyler’s painting now, as I write, I think about how her identities of wife, mother, and cartoonist are inextricable. We don’t feel obligated to talk about Green as her husband in the same way, just as we don’t really talk about R. Crumb as Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s husband, or Art Spiegelman as Françoise Mouly’s husband. In comics conversations, these men are granted more autonomy as artists.
Or is that autonomy something men claim? Is there anything lonelier than men’s autobio? And why does it feel like that’s still held up as the ideal?
Recently, in an excellent review of the new edition of Soldier’s Heart (Tyler’s comic, formerly known as You’ll Never Know), Annie Mok describes Tyler’s work as a sort of answer to the “fuckboy approach to memoir comics.” Moved, I read an interview Mok linked to (a great conversation between Tyler and Tom Spurgeon), as well as a TCJ interview that was published around the same time. In both pieces, I was struck by Tyler’s descriptions of how tightly her life and work have been intertwined—which is, of course, a theme that’s also at the center of Soldier’s Heart.
I thought, too, about a recent piece by my friend Tahneer Oksman, a comics scholar. In an essay about her new book, Tahneer talks about the myth that we should (or even can) separate our personal and professional lives. “In academia, as everyone knows, you’re not supposed to research for personal reasons,” she writes. “It quickly became apparent that writing about this literature, about Jewish women’s identity, was clearly a way for me to work out a lifelong puzzle.” And then this, a sentence that really resonated with me: “There comes a time when everyone has to face the fact that her career choices are, well, personal.”
This is an overgeneralization—of course it is—but I think men’s autobio conceives of “personal” as, like, granting passage to the inner sanctum of their special thoughts. “Personal” in women’s autobio looks more at relationships. Context. Connections.
I can’t think of anyone in comics whose work speaks to the intersection of life and art with more heart than Carol Tyler. I think, too, of other women in autobio who bring their own strengths and sensibilities to the same task. Alison Bechdel takes a cerebral approach. Phoebe Gloeckner’s is pure nerve. Lynda Barry’s is filtered through imagination. And Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s is…I don’t know. Like reading women’s magazines from hell.
There have long been remarkable comics made by these and other women whose careers and/or outputs don’t necessarily resemble those of their male counterparts. The paths they found shouldn’t be considered professional liabilities. They’re part and parcel of what makes them great.
The new edition of Soldier’s Heart—which includes the three volumes of You’ll Never Know plus new pages—is available from Fantagraphics. You can read my 2012 interview with Carol Tyler after the jump. It’s been edited mostly for length, and lightly for clarity.